Painting by WeidenheimerMany artists enjoy painting landscapes for a variety of reasons, often thinking they are easier than painting the human form, but are unaware of the pitfalls in landscapes. Clouds can be horrendous to master and amateur clouds look like suspended cotton balls in a massive swath of blue. Skies are challenging and whether artists who attempt a landscape realize it or not, trees are just as challenging. They can, however, be mastered with practice and good technique, according to artist Troy Weidenheimer. At a packed monthly Fluvanna Art Association workshop, members learned new skills about painting autumn trees.

“Children paint lollipop trees or something resembling a power plant,” he said, then discussed the shapes of trees and why they form the way they do. Those who are learning art sometimes fail to understand the science behind what they see. Weidenheimer often cautions members about the pitfalls of not looking at the shapes and perspective of objects, especially in landscapes.

“Amateurs paint flat trees, ignoring light and shadows,” he said. “We don’t seem to appreciate that it is a large three-dimensional object and for the sake of perspective, it is rounded rather than flat.”

Paintbrushes are key to recreating realistic trees.

“There is no brush that can replicate every branch and twig of a bare tree; artists give the illusion,” he said. “The Chinese use the armpit hair of a mouse.” The members laughed. He said he uses a small half-size paintbrush, which is not always easy to find. Weidenheimer said a rigger makes “clunky branches but is great for grass.” He did not recommend the stencil brush either, because it is too hard. His favorite is an oriental brush that can sweep a line easily from thick to wispy.

He described a variety of trees commonly used in landscape painting, from pines to oaks.

“The lower branches have to reach farther outward to get the sunlight and some will go up toward the sun. There is a science to drawing trees: the trunk, branches, twigs and foliage,” he said. He emphasized using reference photos for specific trees and not to invent them. “Inventing what we are not seeing asks too much of us,” he said. Getting outdoors and seeing the real thing or obtaining good photos should be an artist’s goal.

Looking at foliage presents its own challenges, such as staring at a pine cone head-on as opposed to a different angle that doesn’t require foreshortening. Clumps of foliage will appear sharper in the foreground and fade in the background. He said to paint foliage that recedes into the distance much softer and grayer.

“Always watch where the branches are going – what direction determines shading, light and shadows,” Weidenheimer said.

He talked about how to make colors pop by using a color’s complement. For example, he said, blue will make orange trees stand out. Lighting is a consideration when choosing colors. For instance, upper branches show a cooler, bluish sky color on the sun-lit upper sides except in the golden light near sunset. The opposite goes for branches at the bottom that reflect earth colors from the ground below. He suggested tinting them with burnt sienna.

Green is frequently misunderstood and abused in landscape painting by amateur artists. Weidenheimer suggested making natural colors by combining darker greens with burnt sienna, sepia or black. But the focus remained on the vibrant autumn colors and bare branches.

In his early years, Weidenheimer was impressed by illustrator and watercolor artist Ted Kautzky, whose style was to loosely structure his trees with tighter rendering.

“He inspired me with his realistic but stylized trees that in themselves create mood,” he said. It is easy to see why Weidenheimer admires Kautzky, who not only conveys mood in his work but movement. One can see the wind blowing through his trees. That shows an accomplished landscape painter.

Though Weidenheimer works mostly in acrylics, he is also an accomplished watercolor painter. A leading question is how to preserve the white of the paper. Many watercolor painters try to fight an old school purist idea of never using white paint but instead using masking or liquid frisket. It is a rule that has been challenged over and over again.

“It is an archaic way to add white areas,” Weidenheimer said. “It is like tying your legs together and running a mile.”

Weidenheimer uses his humor and practical approach when teaching art. Those who attend workshops say later that they look at clouds or trees in a whole new way.